Panelists at the 1812 Leadership Circle event (from left) Tom Schwarz ’66, Joan Hinde Stewart, Gene Tobin, and David Wippman at the podium.
At the 1812 Leadership Circle Weekend in New York City earlier this month, President David Wippman reminded those gathered that Hamilton’s mission is to prepare students for lives of meaning, purpose, and active citizenship. “This is something the College has been doing — and doing well — for over 200 years,” he said. “We believe that what we do has been, is, and will continue to be vitally important not just for our students, but for society as a whole.”

Yet when considering the broader institution of higher education, there’s been a growing breakdown of the social contract. To address the question “What is shaping the public’s view and misgivings toward higher education?,” former Hamilton presidents Eugene Tobin (1993-2003) and Joan Hinde Stewart (2003-16) joined Wippman for a panel discussion. The conversation was moderated by Thomas Schwarz ’66, president of Drew University who served as acting president of Hamilton in 1999.

Tobin, who served for 16 years as a senior advisor and program director in higher education at the Mellon Foundation, told the audience that six in 10 Americans believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction. The overarching question, he said, is this: How does a liberal democracy balance the tension between access and privilege? Within a nationwide system of some 4,500 colleges and universities — public and private, sectarian and non-sectarian, two- and four-year — higher education struggles to demonstrate to its many constituencies that it serves a public, as opposed to a private, interest.

“If Hamilton disappeared tomorrow, who would care and why?” Tobin asked. Certainly alumni, faculty, and students have a vested interest in Hamilton’s longevity, but what about beyond that? “What are we doing as an institution to address climate change, environmental justice, racial inequality, opioid addiction, food precarity, and mass incarceration? These are the challenges worthy of a great institution.”

Stewart addressed some of the challenges faced by higher education and questioned the idea that colleges and universities would benefit from outside entities, such as the government, stepping in to mandate solutions. She offered as an example the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent look at college admissions, suggesting that some people mistakenly see the failure to admit a class top down as a “crime against merit.”

“What they don’t seem to understand is that there is no criterion by which such an absolute ranking could be imagined,” Stewart said. “Even a college resolved to enroll only the smartest would find that there is no known algorithm by which such a determination could be made. We are all composites of different abilities irreducible to single measures.”

As for the suggestion that colleges must “reinvent” themselves in order to survive, Stewart disagrees. She cited the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which a little over a decade ago some forecasters said would to be the death knell for traditional colleges and universities. And the enormous wave of closures predicted? Only about 60 higher education institutions ceased operations in the past five years. In fact, Stewart pointed out, distinguished colleges like Hamilton are doing better than ever.

“Good colleges are responding energetically and compassionately to evolving circumstances,” Stewart said. “They are fully committed to keeping college affordable while also coping with COVID, attending to students’ mental health, supporting a largely underpaid professoriate, and of course complying with an increasing number of regulatory demands.”

Another issue, raised as a question to the panelists by Schwarz, is the notion that higher education should equate to career preparation, and when that’s not the case, the institution is failing. Wippman responded that it’s a mistake to talk about return on investment solely in economic terms. While he conceded that college graduates do earn more, evidence also shows they enjoy greater life satisfaction, are more curious intellectually, contribute more to their communities, use fewer government services, and are generally more interesting people.

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“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to be, and for that there’s higher education. For everything else, there’s MasterCard,” he quipped.

Wippman also acknowledged that pinpointing a single policy change and how it would impact higher education is difficult since colleges and universities are vastly different in their goals, sizes, and resources. For example, demographic forecasts show decreasing numbers of high school graduates beginning in 2025. While this is alarming for many institutions struggling for students, it is not a concern for Hamilton, which has seen record applications in recent years. Yet when the Supreme Court makes its decision on affirmative action next year, places like Hamilton, the most selective institutions, will likely be most affected.

So, what is the obligation of institutions like Hamilton?

“It goes beyond the 2,000 students on campus at any given time. We are educating the future leaders of America … [our] impact goes way beyond a college on a hill,” Wippman said. “It is our obligation to make education accessible and affordable to as many people as possible and to enroll as diverse a community as we can. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we have a lot of work to do.”

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